a commentary by Tony McRae

A 16th century Japanese village is nearing the harvest season, only to face the certain threat of marauding bandits (many of whom are former samurai) who show up like clockwork to plunder and rape the countryside.  The villagers need help to defend themselves but have no way to go about getting this help.  They seek the advice of the oldest in the village, a grizzled ancient who tells them to hire samurai.  We have no money, the villagers tell him, all we have is food.  "Find hungry samurai," the old man replies.

A few years earlier, this would have been ludicrous advice, for the proud samurai were members of an elite warrior class in the employ of war lords who held sway over the country.  But now there is civil war and the samurai must fend for themselves.  

The villagers travel to the nearest city where they demonstrate their ineptitude:  they have no idea how to  negotiate with the ferocious and daunting samurai.  After several fruitless days with their rice supply running low, the villagers stumble on a small drama:  a thief is holding a little boy hostage and threatens to kill him if his demands are not met.  An older samurai offers his service to the boy's parents.  He asks for a priest's garment and, most shockingly, asks to have his head shaven.  Then, posing as a priest, he goes to the house where the thief is held up, offers him some food, and before anyone realizes it he's dispatched the thief and rescued the boy.  What impresses the villagers, aside from the man's skill, is his apparent refusal of money from the boy's family.  Ah ha, the villagers think, this may be just the man they are looking for.

What becomes clear to us as the samurai Kambei (played by the wonderful Takashi Shimura) recruits his  team of seven, is that, yes indeed, he and his small band are hungry, but not for food.  They wish for a revival of the samurai code, if only temporarily, and if only in a small desolate village where they might indeed die.  As Kambei selects his band of warriors, he uses two criteria--skill in battle and a respect for the samurai way.  "He who thinks about himself," he says, "will destroy himself, too."  However, when the group heads toward the village they are only six.  One individual is deemed unfit, not only for his evident lack of fighting skills but more importantly for his seeming distain for the samurai code.  This misfit, Kikuchiyo, is played by the great Toshiro Mifune in a bravura performance that appears at first to be overacting, but the more we watch the movie the more we come to understand that it is not Mifune who is overacting but Kikuchiyo, for this ersatz samurai who wants acceptance by the others is, for a time, unable to accept himself.  This, of course, will change.

Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece is arguably the most beautifully composed movie ever made; two of its salient features are group shots (often in threes and sevens) and the use of deep focus, which reinforce the ethos of group over individual.  These shots are never gratuitous but serve the dynamics of the storyline.  When Kikuchiyo is trailing the six samurai hoping to be included, deep focus photography shows him sharing the frame but at a distance from the six.  We see and feel simultaneously his desire to be a part of the group and the samurai's rejection of him.  The fact that Kikuchiyo has a disproportionate number of close-ups is due not only to Mifune status as the most famous actor in Japan, but they serve to isolate him in our minds, to hold him apart:  he is not cut from the same cloth as the others.  And later in the film we will find out why.  Once in the village among farmers Kikuchiyo feels at home.  Though he still plays the clown, he is accepted by the villagers, especially by the children who become his fan club.  But his antics and comments keep him apart from the six.  

It is not accidental that the first time we see Kambei he is disguising himself as a priest.  Yes, it's to kill the thief and save the child, but he maintains a monkish quality throughout.  And it is shared by the other samurai, at least by four of them.  Kikuchiyo, on the other hand, is anything but priestlike--he is the only samurai to make references to the woman of the village and their desirability.  The other member of the seven, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is also a special case, but for a very different reason:  he is the youngest, and he is virginal.  Kambei takes special care throughout the story to see to his education in the ways of the samurai, yet he does not interfere with his dalliance with a village girl.  He is accepted by the older samurai because of his youth and his obvious willingness to learn.  During the recruiting process, when Kambei wanted to send the boy home to learn more, one of the samurai tells the leader, "Even though you call him a kid, kids are often more willing than grownups."  Another adds, "Provided that we treat him like a grownup."

So we have the essence of the story, a battle between good (the samurai) and evil (the bandits), though to put it in such simple terms disguises the story's complexity.  For example, the villagers are seen to be feckless at best.  When Katsushiro uncovers a cache of samurai armament obviously taken from dead or wounded samurai, one of the samurai says:  "I'd like to kill every farmer in this village.  In the movie's longest passage, a clearly emotional Kikuchiyo shouts:  "A fine idea.  What do you all think of farmers?  Saints?  Bah.  They're foxy beasts!  They say:  'We've no rice, we've no wheat.  We've got nothing!  But they have!  They have everything!  Dig under the floors!  Or search the barns!  You'll find plenty!"  He laughs at them.  "They pose as saints but are full of lies!  If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated!  Listen!  Farmers are stingy, foxy, blubbering, mean, stupid, and murderous!  God damn!  That's what they are!  But then! who made them such beasts?"  He points at the seated samurai (the young Katsushiro is not among them):  "You did!  You samurai did it!  You burn their villages!  Destroy their farms!  Steal their food!  Force them to labor!  Take their women!  And kill them if they resist!  So what should farmers do?  Damn...Damn."  He cries openly before them.  There is no further talk of killing the farmers.

Kurosawa never spells out what motivates these warriors to defend this village.  My sense is that Kambei is seen as the antithesis of evil, a true and honorable man in a period of numbing, execrable brutality, and that each of the six sees in him something of their own hopes.   

In the last scene of the movie, after the battle has been won and the farmers are safe, the villagers dance and sing and plant their rice crop while the three surviving samurai look on.  The last words belong appropriately to Kambei, the superb professional, the one most steeped in the samurai way.  As he looks up at the cemetery where the four samurai are buried he says, "Again we are defeated.  The winners are those farmers.  Not us."  The camera pans up to the top of the hill and the graves of the four fallen samurai, the ones who will remain with the villagers.  I suspect that if Kambei were asked to help again, he would acquiesce, for that is his calling, and he really has no other choice. 

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